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Ben & Jerry's email marketing bluff: The calm after the storm in a teacup?

Ben & Jerry’s seemingly knee-jerk decision to drop email marketing made waves across the marketing industry last week. As it turns out the rumours were hugely exaggerated and far from cutting email communication altogether, the ice-cream giant had simply switched off its monthly newsletter to UK fans in favour of social media.

According to the company’s PR Director, Sean Greenwood, it would still be using email to inform subscribers of special events and opportunities and – like any savvy marketing department – sees absolute merit in combining traditional and new channels effectively to make maximum impact.

Still, the reaction that reached far and wide was hugely insightful. While some are willing to jump solely on the social media bandwagon, the majority seem to recognise that email is the gateway to building a meaningful presence on these channels and the two go hand-in-hand. The segmentation and most importantly the trackability that email provides prevails over the scattergun ‘suck it and see’ approach that currently limits social media as a stand-alone medium. Blasting direct messages to all and sundry may reach critical mass more cheaply but at what cost to campaign performance? Indeed, any company thinking of falling for hype over substance should think long and hard about abandoning email marketing and all its merits before potentially taking one step forward and three giant steps back.

Now I’m not discounting the undeniable opportunities that the dawn of social media has laid open to marketers. Its onset has transformed the way we communicate with each other and with our customers. But in relative terms this is just the beginning and we’ve got a long way to go before we start to see the proven results that can so easily be achieved with a well thought-out email strategy. There-in lies the problem.

According to Forrester only around 40 per cent of marketers actually have any sort of formal email marketing strategy in place. What’s more, only the same percentage actively tracks ROI and just 15 per cent measure the lifetime value of email generated prospects. With so many marketers overlooking these crucial details it’s little wonder we’re apparently becoming disengaged with email if some of last week’s discussion threads are to be taken to heart. If email marketing is consistently failing, marketers should – first and foremost – re-evaluate every aspect of their campaigns before writing off the mechanism. Without drawing on proven best practice and creating compelling, user-generated content it stands to reason that the results won’t stack up. Even previously well performing formats can fall down without careful fine-tuning. The trick is to never grow complacent. Treat every execution as a learning exercise because by scrutinising everything from the subject line through to the time of day you hit ‘send’ can make a big impact on response rates.

While getting it right is a challenge, once you’ve cracked it the rewards can be plentiful. Email marketing is a relatively low cost option compared to alternative tactics and so can deliver attractive ROIs. Its easy integration with other marketing channels also adds to the attraction, which is something Ben & Jerry’s UK arm should arguably be exploiting more, rather than short-sightedly casting its tried and tested newsletter format aside. Afterall, it’s a fair assumption that by culling its monthly ChunkMail communication, Ben & Jerry’s will unwittingly alienate a significant proportion of its customer base. Putting the majority of their eggs in one basket could potentially do more harm than good and by reaching out on social networks the company is forgoing ownership of their customer relationships. With email the data is yours – in the social mediaverse you’re entirely at the mercy of the channel.

What impact Ben & Jerry’s bold move will have on its existing customer relationships remains to be seen. In the meantime, I’d happily work with them to prove that, above all, whether on or offline, successful direct marketing campaigns stay true to fundamental marketing principals: Using trusted data to achieve high deliverability with careful segmentation. Whatever the medium, creativity, multi-channel integration, and proper measurement of results and ROI will ultimately win-out.